Mainers pay the price for Republicans’ game of budget chicken

Mainers pay the price for Republicans’ game of budget chicken

As you may have read in the headlines there is a spending battle going down in the Maine legislature. First we heard about a $44 million spending package suggestion from Democrats. After about a week of political wrangling, that number has been dragged down to $11 million, which managed to pass both chambers, but will likely be vetoed straight away by Governor Paul LePage. So what is going on?

Imagine a working class household. Perhaps you’re actually part of one. You manage to cover expenses, but don’t have a lot of savings. Then one day, your boss calls you in, tells you the company is doing well, and gives you a bonus.

What do you do? Well obviously it’s a good idea to build up your savings. But you also are in dire need of a few things. Your car really needs some work. Your kids haven’t had new clothes in a year and are starting to outgrow the ones they have. Your hot water heater uses oil and is costing you a fortune.

You weigh the importance of these things – which ones are needs as opposed to wants, what are good investments that will save money in the long run, what can wait. You spend on what you have to and save what you can.

The state budget really isn’t all that different. There’s a certain amount of money, a certain number of things that need to get funded, and the legislature figures out a reasonable compromise. Or at least they did, before this administration.

The good news, is that there is $55.5 million surplus. There are bills that the legislature and the people (through referendum) have passed that need funding to go into effect. Things that are necessary to meet the minimum obligations of state government to the citizens of Maine.

The bad news is that LePage and Republicans in the House would rather hold that money hostage in a game of political chicken with Democrats over an unrelated issue than put the needs of Maine citizens first.

The unrelated issue is a “competing measure” to go on the ballot next to the citizen initiated referendum question to raise the minimum wage. It’s a bill that business lobbyists, who have opposed and defeated every legislative attempt to raise the minimum wage for the past six years, tried to push through the legislature. It would put another question on the ballot, next to the one that citizens came up with and collected signatures for, suggesting a lower minimum wage raise. They call it a compromise, but the existing referendum question is already a compromise. What it really is, is a way to confuse the issue and defeat a minimum wage raise, yet again. It was rightly defeated in the legislature, mostly along party lines.

So what does that have to do with coming up with a spending plan for the surplus? Well one thing’s for certain, our Governor sure knows how to hold a grudge. Now LePage and House Republicans are trying to make Democrats pay for the competing measure not making the cut by refusing to pass any spending package whatsoever. Despite all of the pressing needs that can only be met by funding bills that have already passed – many of them Republican bills – the Governor and House Republicans are threatening to put all of the surplus in the Rainy Day Fund (the state’s savings account).

Democrats have tried to compromise in order to meet the most pressing needs of the state and they have sacrificed priorities dear to them in order to do the right thing for the Maine people. For instance, the $11 million package that finally passed does not include funding for Clean Elections, even though the program has been repeatedly raided and shortchanged to the point it might not be able to accommodate the candidates who want to use it this year. This painful choice by Democrats enabled the spending package to pass the Senate by a veto proof margin with the cooperation of Senate Republicans, but House Republicans stood with the governor against it, causing it to pass the House with only a majority, and all but ensuring a veto by LePage.

The priority bills in the $11 million package include a pay raise for state law enforcement officers to keep qualified officers and attract high quality recruits, pay increases at the state’s psychiatric facilities to recruit and retain capable employees to make them safe for both employees and patients, an increase in the reimbursement rate for woefully underpaid home health providers for the elderly and disabled, a stop gap $2.5 million to keep the county jails running, education tax credits to help ease student debt and several more vital needs.

The truth is, not funding legislation is a sneaky, back door way of vetoing legislation. This extends to legislation passed at the ballot box by Maine citizens, such as adequately funding education and clean elections. Bills that don’t get funded, die. In this case, Republicans are willing to scuttle some of their own priorities to try to punish and blackmail Democrats over the competing measure issue.

The thing is, it’s not Democratic legislators they are punishing, it’s Maine citizens.

About author

April Thibodeau
April Thibodeau 11 posts

April Thibodeau majored in Political Science at the University of Maine and has experience in law, non-profit work and political advocacy. She lives on Westport Island with her husband and two cats and enjoys gardening, homesteading and rural life.

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